Telling lies or leaving out the truth is a common teen behavior. Kids this age have a lot more going on in their lives — sometimes good and sometimes bad — that they may want to keep to themselves. But when teens with ADHD frequently tell lies, there are other factors to consider.
Not all kids with ADHD have issues with lying. In fact, some are compulsively honest, which can create a different kind of problem. But for many kids, lying is a behavior that starts when they’re young. It can become even trickier as they go through their teen years.
Risk-taking among teens with ADHD
The teen years can be a time of new experiences, from dating to driving to going to parties. It’s also a time when kids may experiment with drugs, alcohol, or other risky behaviors.
So there can be a lot more to hide, keep private, cover up, or lie about. That includes whatever it is they’ve done and the consequences, like driving a car full of friends with only a learner’s permit and getting pulled over.
Some kids with ADHD may lie more frequently than their peers, though. That may be partly due to trouble with . It may also be a way to cover up challenges related to ADHD symptoms. And these same factors can put teens with ADHD at greater risk of engaging in risky behavior to begin with.
Why teens with ADHD may lie
It’s not just risky behaviors that teens with ADHD may want to cover up. When they’re not telling the truth, it’s often about things that happen in their everyday lives. These are usually events or situations that are impacted by their ADHD symptoms, particularly school and schoolwork.
Let’s say your teen recently took a math test. When you ask how she did, she says she got a B. The next week she cleans out her backpack and you see that she actually got a D. Why would she lie about it? You’ve never punished her for bad grades. And she must know how easily you could find out the truth.
One answer might be that she really isn’t lying. She may truly not remember the grade, or even that there was a test that day. But hiding the truth can also help offset negative feelings like shame or a fear of failing the class.
If kids can keep their parents from knowing about a bad grade, it’s one less hurdle to face. The “truth” doesn’t feel quite real — at least for now.
Executive function and teenage lying
Teens with ADHD have executive function challenges. They often struggle with self-control and thinking through consequences. That can lead them to tell frequent lies.
Imagine your teen tells you she’s going to a friend’s house to watch movies. But then she heads off to a party she’s not allowed to go to. She doesn’t consider that something could go wrong to expose her lie. Like having a flat tire on the way back. Or a getting a court summons for underage drinking after the police break up the party.
Teens with executive function challenges often have wishful thinking — believing that nothing bad will happen if they break the rules, or that they won’t be caught. In reality, they may seem to lie more because they get caught in lies more often.
Sometimes, teens with ADHD may be truly unsure of what’s the truth and what’s not. That, too, ties in with their executive function issues. For example, a high school senior might think he asked his teacher for a college recommendation. But he has trouble keeping track of tasks and prioritizing them. He may not realize that he never did what he said he would.
The consequences of teenage lying
Poor grades. Risky behavior. Lateness and absenteeism. Teen problems can have more serious consequences as kids move through high school. Lying about these issues, of course, only makes things worse.
Teens with ADHD may dig themselves in deeper as they avoid dealing with their problems, telling lies to cover lies. If the cycle isn’t broken, lying can almost become a way of life.
There are other concerns that make lying a bigger problem at this age. Teens with ADHD are at higher risk of mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. If they’re using drugs or drinking, and lying about it, they may be doing it to self-medicate. It’s important to know the signs of anxiety and depression.
How to respond when your teen lies
Helping teens understand why they tell frequent lies — and the consequences of their lies — is crucial for their well-being and success.
- Don’t just accept lying as OK. Make sure your teen understands how you feel about the behavior and why you’re concerned about the consequences of lying.
- Don’t count it as a betrayal. Lying isn’t typically an action against you as a parent. It’s a bad decision. Focus less on the lie itself and more on what the lie was about.
- Anticipate what your child will most likely lie about. Keep an open dialogue about these issues so you can help your teen find strategies and get support.
- Give “evidence” of the lie. Teens with ADHD may keep going with a lie, unrealistically hoping it will somehow become true or the problem will just go away. Show your child proof of what really happened — the email the teacher sent about missing work or the parking ticket you found in the car.
- Remove the shame of lying. Don’t excuse the lie, but show that you understand what led to it: “It sounds like you were struggling. Let’s figure out how you got to this place to begin with. Then let’s figure out how to get you back on track.”
- Don’t dismiss drinking or drug use as “normal” teen behavior. Confront your teen about it. Talk about what’s going on and the possible reasons for the alcohol or drug use.
You probably won’t be able to stop the lying altogether. But you can help your teen understand that lying will only make problems worse.
Teens with ADHD often lie about school and homework.
Teens with ADHD generally don’t lie to be defiant, but rather to cope with their challenges.
Try to focus on what led to the lie rather than the lie itself.
About the author
About the author
Peg Rosen writes for digital and print, including ParentCenter, WebMD, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart.
Ellen Braaten, PhD is a child psychologist, professor, and founding director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Massachusetts General Hospital.